On Post-Truth

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about “post-truth”. Oxford English Dictionary named it word of the year, after it saw a 2000% uptick in its use in the aftermath of both Brexit and the American election of Donald Trump.

The official Oxford definition of “post-truth” is:

relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

Whether it’s a rip-off of Stephen Colbert’s 2006 word of the year “truthiness” or not (around the 5 minute mark in the video), I think “the belief in what you feel to be true rather than what the facts will support” (truthiness) is on a personal level what post-truth is to society.

It was a sad moment in 2006 when we realized that Colbert’s “truthiness” is a real thing – that some people, and even people in positions of power, are not only able to ignore reality in favour of their own felt beliefs but even do so brazenly and defend their unfounded views against fact checkers. Back then, such people were seen as having gone too far into their own worldview or echo chamber, and the rest of us would wait awkwardly for them to surface and face reality (or not). We’ve always had such people, but they were usually regarded as mentally unsound and had no credibility, much less political currency. Ten years later this phenomenon is so common and widespread that it’s not only barely remarkable when someone makes up facts on the spot, but to many this behaviour is apparently a sign of leadership.

The individual sense of truthiness being projected to the social level of post-truth shows a deep collective cynicism. What is truth if nobody can be trusted to speak it? Fact-checkers said that Hillary Clinton almost always told the truth and Trump almost always lied, and yet polls showed Trump had an 8-point lead on Hillary in regard to public perceptions of honesty – so what’s the point of facts?

Getting away from the American election, I see post-truth all over social media. It affects my relationships, and it deepens my echo chamber. I keep seeing people say that we all need to get out of our echo chambers and friend some people with views different from our own, but more and more I find my friends list getting shorter because there is no basis on which to discuss issues with people anymore. People I’ve known and loved for years refuse to accept any article I post as being truthful, and express concern toward me that I’ve been brainwashed or that my judgment has been compromised because I accept the word of news outlets such as CBC, the National Post, the Globe and Mail, or the New York Times. Other people engage with me on an important issue like climate change, and the day after I (and others) provide numerous quality resources addressing the issue from various angles, that person then posts a video decrying climate change in conspiratorial terms. Keeping certain people in my friends list might make me more aware of opposing views, but it also draws me further from reality, and it doesn’t provide any basis for meaningful discussion. After all, if science and journalism aren’t trustworthy, if they don’t point to reality, then what does?

Perhaps that’s how our personal echo chambers got to this point. Perhaps our friends lists have been culled (from both ends) because we simply have no shared understanding of reality on which to draw for a fair discussion. That this is happening on such a large scale, in an age of unprecedented access to information and research, is terrifying. We’ve gone beyond division by worldview, in which we are unable to agree upon interpretations of reality that form the foundation of our way of seeing the world, all the way to division over reality itself.

I can’t help but see this as a sullen way to “win” an argument. When I don’t like your views, I can question your worldview. When I can’t win an argument about your worldview, I can question the facts behind it. And when I still can’t win the argument I can undermine the source of those facts, if necessary with conspiracy theories about widespread bias or jabs at your judgment for believing in them.

I can’t claim I’ve never done this: I have expressed incredulity at people who are willing to take the word of Donald Trump. I’m sure I’ve offended such people with my incredulity. But at least when I do so, I point to facts, fact-checkers, or credible sources. I can’t deny that it can feel good to be right, but that’s not why I do it; truth actually matters to me, and when the issues we’re talking about are potentially life-and-death issues (like climate change), ignorance is negligence. And truth be told, being right has never felt so lousy, perhaps because it has never meant less. Taking the time to craft an argument and post sources is no longer considered thoughtful or thorough, it’s considered pedantic and disingenuous and misleading, as though I have nothing better to do with my time than hatch elaborate conspiracy theories designed to make people feel bad about themselves.

And that’s the other side of this. Nobody has ever liked being wrong – it stings – but it seems that somewhere in the past few years we’ve crossed a line. We are no longer humbled by being wrong, we are offended by it. Pointing out someone else’s mistake, or mistaken belief, is understood to be a sort of condescending attack.

A few years back, I said something ignorant on Facebook. A conservative friend of mine called me out on it, and I felt like I had been slapped in the face – not because he was harsh, but because I was publicly embarrassing myself and hadn’t realized it until he said so. I think twice about commenting on issues I don’t fully understand now, and I’m grateful to have this person in my life. Similarly, I have a few liberal friends who chime in on articles I’ve posted that do not tell the whole story, usually offering links with relevant information. As someone who strives to bring people together to talk about important issues in moderate and friendly ways, I’m greatly indebted to these people on both sides of the spectrum. But they are so few. Some of them are dropping off of social media altogether, or laying low, because their attention to the truth no longer pays off there. Engaging with others in a post-truth society is costly.

I’ve seen a lot of analysis of post-truth and tips on how to get out of echo chambers, but how do we combat this breadth and depth of cynicism? I try to do it by ensuring that I know what I’m talking about, by producing sources, by asking clarifying questions, by trying to “win” an argument gracefully – but all of that is getting harder, as my sources and even my intentions are increasingly being called into question. Is the answer to withdraw from internet life, and spend more time with people in the flesh? Undoubtedly that would help me; but the internet is the most central and important public space now, should we abandon it to the trolls?

The only helpful direction for further thought I can contribute is that we need to examine our emotional intelligence and how it relates to our intellectual abilities; this connection has been dangerously under-researched and poorly understood. We need to work together to solve the problems of our world, and now we can see that we need to be able to think together in order to think clearly at all. Our inability to get along is clouding our collective judgment. We confuse being wrong with a character flaw, and we confuse a sense of moral superiority with being right. Perhaps the key to unlocking our IQ is a better EQ, a better self-understanding that gives us empathy and compassion for others.

Until then, be generous with each other. It’s a good start.

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